January 6, 2000 - From the January, 2000 issue

California's State Parks Have A New Champion: A Vision Summit & Master Plan Are Being Promoted

If March's $2.1 billion parks bond passes as expected, all of California's parks are slated for long-needed upgrades. But California's state parks may face the greatest need after years of neglect and without a built-in constituency fighting for them. Now, State Parks Director Rusty Areias has embarked on a statewide visioning process to come up with a strategy for the entire system. TPR is pleased to excerpt his comments from the L.A. visioning event held at the ScienCenter.

When the Governor called last March and asked if I would become the Director of State Parks, I was probably more surprised than anybody else. It's not a job I sought and not something that I thought I'd be doing. But the State Parks Department is the most committed group of professionals that I've ever worked with. It's a fabulous department. During these last 15 or 16 years, which were very tough times in government, the way this department kept things together-with baiting wire, bubble gum, paper clips, fingernail polish and anything else they could find-was amazing. They're the real heroes. We balanced the budgets for city, State, county, local, and regional park district levels on the backs of committed officials, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude. If there's one thing I'm going to do while I'm State Parks Director, it's fight for these people every chance I get for proper compensation. At some point, the view from the house on Lake Tahoe doesn't pay for the kids to get an education or your retirement.

As I've become more familiar with the State Parks system, I've come across many traditions to be proud of, but also some that are problems. I've realized that when people visit parks-whether it's a Los Angeles City park, a czCounty park or a State or national park-most really don't know where they are, and don't care. In fact, I've asked people what their favorite State park is, and most say Yosemite Yosemite hasn't been a State park for 100 years!

During the past couple of administrations-in which there was very little discretionary money and parks certainly were not a priority-State Parks did not assert itself in a leadership role. It really got my attention when the $1.5 billion parks bond was proposed with only 20% allocated to State Parks. I thought, ‘What's wrong with this picture?' We'd always gotten 33% of the money from bonds, and the counties, cities, conservancies and other organizations and commissions got the rest. It quickly became apparent that State Parks was rapidly becoming irrelevant. I was told that we didn't look like California. The 55 million people who were visiting State Parks every year were not representative of California as a whole. And there were a lot of people who weren't utilizing State Parks for one reason or another.

So we began the process of figuring out what corrections we needed to make. We wanted parks to be representative of California's collective experience, and to attract the diversity that is California. But trying to crack the code of how we attract those people-African Americans, Latinos, Asians-to State Parks has been very difficult. We would invite various area representatives to workshops, and they would send their Anglo assistant to the "park meeting." That's been very frustrating. On top of that, our education standards are not the highest in State government, our pay is amongst the lowest, and next to Corrections, we have more gun-packing rangers than anyone else-700.

But we are undeterred. This workshop will lead to a vision summit on February 16, 17 and 18. We want to establish a master plan in California for all parks that the Legislature and the Governor will sign on to, so that we can get a commitment for funding. I have learned that in tough times-and it will get tough again-we're like an arts program at a rural high school. We are the first damn thing to get cut. Fortunately, this Governor has been fabulous in terms of his support. He has said over and over that education is his first, second, and third priority, but if you look at who got the money in last year's budget and what's happening with the bond issue, we are clearly his fourth.

I'm going to look at every division and every department within State Parks. I also want to make sure that we are in collaboration with city, county and regional parks, working as effectively as we can to make the experience of visiting our State Parks-county, State or regional-a good one. How do we interpret California's natural resources? If we're running recreational lakes or beaches or forests, how can we really enhance the experience the public enjoys when they come to our parks? The Governor will put money into our parks system, but we have to spend it wisely.

There are some things that society just ought to provide. I come from the school of thought that says the only parks we ought to be charging at are places like 3-Com Park or Anaheim Stadium. During the last 10 years, there's been tremendous pressure on our department to raise more money-to become more self sufficient and more independent. But in the process, we've commercialized and we've denied access. A family would show up with a station wagon full of kids on vacation, and we'd charge them two dollars. You talk about making people mad! Somebody shows up with a dog; we try to charge them a dollar? And the rangers or temporary season employees would have to put up with the abuse. Well, I have a little bit of power, and I unilaterally got rid of those two fees. You wouldn't believe all the calls, emails and letters I received in support of that.

But I don't know if there should be any fees at all. Maybe all the educational facilities that we operate collectively as the Parks system ought to be free. Camping, overnight facilities, Hearst Castle-we charge for those types of things. But we don't want to deny access because the fees are too high. We have a lot to consider here.

We have the park bond issue coming up on the March ballot, and I hope all of you will double your efforts to get that passed, because we are all down in the water if that doesn't happen. A $2.1 billion park bond-we've never seen anything like that in California. Prop. 13-the water bond-is another $2.1 billion. In isolation, they do very well. But you put them together and add the fiscal analysis, and it's not as easy a sell as you might think. Who knows what's going to happen with this economy between now and March 7th? We simply have to get that passed.

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Earlier today, I was meeting with some people in the entertainment industry. Every year, 500 films are shot in State parks, and for that we get a total of $250,000. They pay more for sandwiches than they do for the use of State parks. There are some low budget films, but a lot of them are the big film companies too. So this is our time of need. If they're going to continue to have access to our State parks for filming purposes, then they sure ought to help us pass this bond issue.

But we need your help as well. You are the leaders in your communities. You are the people that others look to determine these issues. And I hope you will get out there and double your efforts, reaching out to your friends and groups that you can inform, because it is so important.

We're going to have two more of these workshops-one in Lodi and one in San Diego. That will lead to a statewide summit in Monterey. We're bringing in the best mix of park professionals, out-of-the-box thinkers, people from the international community-and about 40 of us are going to sit around and talk about the role Parks should play in society for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years. Hopefully the corrections needed by this Park system to stay relevant and the cooperation that needs to exist between all park systems will come from that.

People in this State are really dependent on parks for spiritual renewal that people require. In this overly commercial world, parks become more and more important. I grew up a farm boy in the Central Valley; open space was always something I could take for granted. But that's not the norm in California today-not at all. Our parks can and will play a more important role, but we need your best ideas.

One of my favorite quotes is by John Kennedy: "When everybody is agreeing and there is total harmony and tranquility, only one person is doing the thinking." And that's not what we're after here. We're after conflict. We're after an inspiring atmosphere, where the best ideas are going to come out. I haven't come up with very many original ideas myself, but I have recognized a lot of them. We owe you from State Parks a real debt of gratitude for coming here and sharing your best ideas with us.

Los Angeles is a very important part of California. It's the economic and cultural center of California, some people would argue the world. State Parks has been providing access and interpretation more effectively than anybody for one hundred and some years in California, and we want to play a more active role in Los Angeles. But we need your help to do it. Albert Einstein said-another one of my favorite quotes: "Everything's changed but the way we think." Well, the thinking needs to catch up with the reality because that's all we've got.

Thank you very much.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.